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OPINION: Please don’t let ‘mys’ be the next Scandinavian lifestyle trend

Swedish 'mys' looks next in the chain of untranslatable word-based Scandinavian lifestyle trends. If only those writing about it knew that it very often means little more than binging on dreadful tacos and Netflix.

OPINION: Please don't let 'mys' be the next Scandinavian lifestyle trend
For many Swedes 'mys' means little more than guzzling crisps in front of the TV. Photo: Ingvar Karmhed/SvD/TT

The New York Times fired the first shot last week, with “Danish Hygge is so last year, say hello to Swedish mys“, followed by a listing of posh lifestyle boutiques in Stockholm’s trendy Södermalm district.

Leaving aside the fact that hygge was actually the lifestyle trend of 2016, the article entirely misses the point of mys, which tends defiantly towards the trashy, and is much more about wrapping yourself in your duvet on the sofa than lounging on the sort of pricey woven quilts sold in the shops mentioned.

Although it’s “very similar” to hygge, the New York Times argues, mys is narrower, and “refers more pointedly to an ultra-cozy atmosphere”.

This much is true.

While a summer picnic or family bicycle ride can be hyggelig, mys is limited to the ‘candles and cocoa’ side of hygge. You could probably mysa around a campfire on a summer night, but you couldn’t mysa during a walk in the woods.

Danes also debate whether hygge is possible when you’re alone (most argue it’s by definition sociable). Mys has no such constraints.

While it can be social, you can absolutely mysa alone in the bath, or having a long lie-in. Children might mumble jag vill mysa, “I want to be cosy”, when refusing to emerge from their duvets to go to school.

But while hygge is all about making a little bit of extra effort to create the perfect atmosphere, mys is much less fussy.

Surrounding yourself with artisanal candles, and sipping from a top-end red wine is not exactly incompatible with mys, but I’d argue the posher and showier your surroundings and comestibles, the harder true mys is to achieve.

This does not mean mys isn’t commercial though. It has in fact been so relentlessly commercialised in Sweden that it’s lost a lot of its original meaning.

Mys, expensive scented candles or a Nordic bastardisation of tacos? Discuss. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

For many Swedes fredagsmys, which happens after work on Friday, is the pinnacle of mys (although if you were being uncharitable, you’d argue this is just a way of putting a positive spin on staying in on a Friday night).

And that the centre of it all is tacos is almost entirely down to the marketing carried out throughout the 1990s by the Swedish businessman Lars-Olof Mattsson.

After he was served some tacos on a friend’s yacht off the West Coast, Mattsson decided to launch Tex-Mex food in Sweden, and set up the brand Santa Maria, which now has its own dedicated section in most Swedish supermarkets.

Mattsson is not the only businessman who has cashed in on fredagsmys.

Before the arrival of Netflix, Sweden seemed to have more branches of the video chain Hemmakväll (meaning ‘evening in at home’) than it had pubs or bars, a worrying sign, I’d argue, of how little time Swedes spend out and about in the evening.

Swedish mys is also part of the reason for the gigantic crisp and snacks sections in most supermarkets and convenience stories. Popular fredagsmys options include potato crisps flavoured with dill (weird), jordnötsringar peanut rings (weirder), Cheez Ballz (disgusting) and Flamin’ Hot Cheez Cruncherz (dangerously addictive).

Despite all the mys-based marketing, the old meaning of mys survives, however.

It is the height of mys (and completely free) to snuggle up with your partner or children under a warm duvet long into Saturday morning. Having sex can be mysigt (so long as it doesn’t get too energetic).

It is mysigt to stay in your pyjamas until lunchtime. It is mysigt to have pancakes for breakfast (although also a bit American, as Swedes tend not to see pancakes as breakfast).

Another core mys variant, of course is julmys, ‘Christmas mys‘, which describes the calm and cosy Christmas ideal of doing puzzles, making and eating sweets, and slowly chatting over glasses of warm, sweet spicy glögg with friends and family.

What you can bet on, though, is that hardly any of the copycat articles that follow the New York Times’ piece on mys (and they will come, I guarantee it), will make much mention of tacos and Netflix.

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IN DATA: Why you’re not alone if you feel lonely in Sweden

It's not much consolation if you're a foreigner struggling to make friends, but you are not alone. According to official statistics, foreigners in Sweden feel lonelier and report fewer close friendships than Swedes. The Local's intern Rita Cruz carried out an open survey to learn more.

IN DATA: Why you're not alone if you feel lonely in Sweden

You arrive in Sweden to work, study, or start a life with your partner. You join five or six international groups on Facebook, you are friendly to your neighbours, and take fika with your classmates and colleagues. You start collective activities and hobbies, you take Swedish lessons, you put yourself out there. But it seems you can only connect with other foreigners – why can’t you get through to Swedes? Is it in your head or is there some truth to it?

It’s an old debate, expat online forums and social media groups go through it over and over again, and researchers have been discussing it for decades. By now, Sweden’s cold, unfriendly reputation seems to be irreversible.

We asked The Local’s readers for their insight and they said it was indeed very hard to make friends in Sweden – with Swedes, that is. Looking at the issue with a scientific eye, data from Statistics Sweden (SCB), Sweden’s official statistics agency, shows that foreigners report feeling lonelier and having a harder time making friends.

While there may be many straightforward answers, like a feeling of not belonging to a new society, negative experiences while seeking housing or employment, or just a language barrier, a lot points out to cultural aspects.

Is it a matter of culture?

The Expat Insider Survey, organised by the expat networking organisation Internations, constantly ranks Sweden as one of the unfriendliest countries for international residents. When looking at topics like how easy it is to settle in, how welcome society is, how friendly the locals are and how easy it is to make friends, Swedish culture seems to be the root of the problem.

In 2022, Mexico dominated in all categories of friendliness and openness, and countries like Brazil, Portugal and Spain, or Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand all make an appearance in the top 10, while the Nordics are completely absent. Are Latin American or Southeast Asia countries culturally more open and welcoming? 

For decades, academics have discussed what constitutes Swedish culture and how that can be seen as an obstacle by foreigners. Åke Daun, a professor at Stockholm University, has produced the most well-known research. He found that a clear separation of the private and public spheres was puzzling to non-Swedes.

“Swedes find it completely natural not to socialise privately with colleagues even if they have worked together for years. This doesn't conflict with the fact that many Swedes actually count those with whom they work as among their closest friends”, he wrote in the 1980s.

Since most internationals’ contact with Swedes is at work, it makes it hard for them to make Swedish friends.

“Even Swedes can - to the surprise of many foreign observers - work side by side for years without ever having been to each other’s homes,” Daun wrote. 

In many countries, it is perfectly normal, and even expected, that after a few years working alongside someone whom you’ve come to consider your friend, you would meet them for coffee or invite them to your home. 

This public/private divide extends to other areas, such as public displays of emotion, which translate in the way people communicate, making them come across as cold and distant.

“I have found that, culturally, Swedes take a while to let people in. This, in a way, can make it hard to make friends initially. However, once they get to know you they are incredibly kind and loyal friends”, says Madeline Robson, 31, who’s been living in Sweden for three years.

She recognises that Swedish culture requires more time and effort when trying to connect with people.

This seems to be an experience shared by those who answered The Local’s survey: 40 percent say they have not befriended any Swedes, while almost 30 percent say that it took them a year or more to make a Swedish friend. 

More recently, researchers Bengt Brülde and Filip Fors dove deep into the question of Swedish individualism and set out to debunk the myth of the lonely Swede. They concluded that Swedes actually do better than most Europeans when it comes to the numbers and quality of their friendships.

“A possible explanation for this is that Swedish individualism makes it easier to choose one's own company, and that this leads to more and better friendships,” they concluded. 

This means Swedes feel freer not to spend time with people they don’t want in their lives, making friendship a bigger commitment to those they actually let in.

Before moving from her native Canada to join her Swedish partner, Madeline Robson had already had a certain image of Swedes painted for her.

“I was told Swedish people were hard to get to know and that I likely wouldn’t have Swedish friends," she says. 

Eager to build a community she could lean on, Madeline thought the best way to achieve that would be to connect with other internationals, with whom she had common experiences.

Like many other newly arrived people, she actively worked on building new friendships, and her community slowly started to shape up. In that journey, she found that her own insecurities were the bigger obstacle.

“I didn’t know the language or understand the nuances of the culture. I felt like I was a burden for making people accommodate me, even though everyone spoke English and didn’t mind. So at first, I had a hard time opening up to people. But after a while I learned that the more I opened up, the more people were willing to get to know me. And that’s when things started to get a lot easier and it felt more natural to make friends.” 

“When you live abroad, everything can feel like it requires extra effort to fit in”, Madeline concludes.

On her Instagram and TikTok she shares her experience of life as a foreigner in Sweden and gets lots of questions on how to make Swedish friends.

There is no formula – and that’s also not the point, she says. “I always say that that shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to connect with others who make you feel good about yourself, who support you, and who you share interests with. Go on friendship dates, join in on community events, attend meet-ups. It’s ultimately about putting yourself out there”.